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Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson to Receive AAPT 2021 Oersted Medal

January 28, 2021

Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson to Receive AAPT 2021 Oersted Medal

Prestigious award recognizes contributions to physics and physics education

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been named as the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Oersted Medal, presented by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).

The Oersted Medal, which will be awarded at a ceremonial session of the 2021 AAPT Virtual Summer Meeting, recognizes President Jackson’s outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics through her pioneering national leadership in physics education, her exceptional service to AAPT, and her mentoring of students and in-service teachers.

“Dr. Jackson has made many contributions to physics and physics education,” said AAPT Executive Officer Beth Cunningham. “Her valuable contributions to science have resulted in useful technologies in the telecommunications field. She continues her effort to preserve and strengthen the U.S. national capacity for innovation by advocating for increased support for basic research in science and engineering. She has also advocated for expanding the domestic talent pool by attracting women and members of underrepresented groups into careers in science. She has served the public and the international community through her work at NRC. She has led change at a research-intensive university.”

The Oersted Medal is named for Hans Christian Oersted a Danish physicist who — in the course of creating a demonstration for teaching his class — discovered that electric currents cause a magnetic field. This discovery was a crucial step in establishing the theory of electromagnetism so important in building modern technology and modern physics. The award was established by AAPT, the premier professional society established to advance the greater good through physics education, in 1936. The award is given annually to a person who has had outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics.

A theoretical physicist, President Jackson has had a distinguished career that includes senior leadership positions in academia, government, industry, and research. She holds an S.B. in physics, and a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics — both from MIT. She is the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT — in any field — and has been a trailblazer throughout her career.

In 1999, when she was named the 18th president of Rensselaer, President Jackson became the first African American woman to lead a top-ranked research university. Her accomplishments, along with her ongoing advocacy for women and minorities in the sciences, have garnered numerous recognitions, including 55 honorary degrees.

In 2015, President Jackson received the inaugural Alice H. Parker Award from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which honors women leaders in innovation. In 2016, United States President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for contributions in science and engineering.

In 2018, she was awarded the W.E.B. DuBois Medal from the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. The medal honors those who have made significant contributions to African and African American history and culture, and more broadly, individuals who advocate for intercultural understanding and human rights in an increasingly global and interconnected world.

President Jackson was the recipient of the 2019 Burton Award from the Forum on Physics Society for “distinguished application of her knowledge of physics to strengthen the use of nuclear power as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, advance education as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and render broad service to government, charitable, and corporate board and committees.”


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Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.